Gravity junkies feel the pull of adrenaline-charged adventure sport
Special to The Province
October 11, 2005
It's 9 a.m. and Jim Orava's phone is ringing off the hook. It's competing with the radio that is chattering on the kitchen counter.
That's because it's sunny in Pemberton and all the "air heads" are calling in to find out the latest flying conditions.
Orava has been flying hang-gliders and now paragliders for 20 years.
That's how he met his French-Swiss wife, Corrine, who was visiting B.C. and got Orava's name as to someone who might lend or rent her a paragliding wing. The encounter immediately turned to true love, followed by marriage.
The two now fly together all over the world -- in exotic locations like Nepal, Turkey and Peru -- and are known to many as "The Bird Couple."
Orava somehow still finds the time to hold down a somewhat regular job as a stuntman/locations and safety expert on big outdoor film sets.
The "air heads" nickname suits paragliders rather well. But what is paragliding?
Paragliding is often mistaken for parasailing, parachuting or sky diving. It is a young sport with roots in the French and Swiss Alps going back only to 1987.
In the early years, people using ram air parachutes found that hurtling themselves off mountains gave them the ability to glide before touching down.
Soon after the material was changed to non-porous nylon and each year the technology improved, making the glide ratio go from a weak 3- or 4-1 now to an impressive 9-1. This means for every vertical kilometre up, flyers can glide nine km.
Plus, with the advent of more high-tech help, paragliders can now stay up and actually go up in thermals for hours.
Paragliders have flown off Mount Everest and top-landed on Europe's Mount Blanc. It is one of the fastest growing participant sports in the world.
Cross-country flying is the newest craze. Will Gadd of Canmore, Alta., holds the world record with a 400-plus km flight in Texas.
Gadd also flew from Golden, over the Rockies into Alberta -- a chilling task considering the commitment needed once he was airborne over high peaks and far from any rescuers, should he go down somewhere.
The newest trend in Pemberton has the local "air heads" taking camping gear along, stopping on a peak or landing in some alpine meadow, then continuing to fly the following day.
The sport has indeed come a long ways. In the old days, all paragliders really had was "sled rides," a term referring to a one-way downward glide. One would climb up a mountain, unfold his wing and get a quick ride down.
Appealing as it was, it's amazing where the sport is today. In B.C., there are many flying sites, including ones near Bridal Falls, Vernon, Golden and Invermere.
Pemberton itself is considered to rival some of the world's best cross-country sites. Recently, an amazing new location was found near Hedley, where the Similkameen Valley thermals are so strong that military helicopters train there.
But it's in Europe that the sport has really taken off. In France, there are 40,000 pilots with another 13,000 in Switzerland and 12,000 in the Czech Republic.
In Canada, there are only a thousand or so paraglider pilots. In the U.S., liability woes have curtailed the sport at only 2,000 or so flyers.
A great deal goes into a good paragliding location. Unlike in Europe, which was logged hundreds of years ago and are now grassy alpine meadows, good and safe flying locations are still few and far between in B.C.
Tree landings are common. A few weeks ago, a Russian pilot went down in the Hurley Pass area near Pemberton and the huge military helicopter had to be called in from Comox to winch him out.
B.C. flyers are urged to carry a "tree-rescue kit," composed of a climbing rope and carabiners as a descending device.
The sport is best termed as being "dangerously easy". It is the takeoffs and landings that are crucially important because it is relatively easy to misjudge or neglect proper pre-flight preparations.
But most "air heads" still claim that there is nothing like it. Climbers and other adrenaline-charged gravity junkies are embracing it as a true culmination of everything they have done to date.
There are many stories about people neglecting their jobs, their families and responsibilities in order just to keep flying. Hence, other nicknames such as "paraholics."
But it is the "air heads" name that seems to be especially true. A great deal of concentration is needed prior to take off and many people tend to forget many other possessions behind at the launch site -- like wallets, cameras and water bottles -- making them "air heads" in more ways than one.